Just as I happened to be thinking about education this week, I came across an excellent article on Slate called “College isn’t for everyone.” For me, this wasn’t a new idea or a revelation, though it may be shocking or weird for other readers. My parents have been saying this for years. My father was a college professor and lamented for ages the push to get everyone to college. Here’s what happened from what I remember him saying (and mind you, he’s no longer around to correct me if I’m wrong, so hopefully I’m remembering right): having students at the university level who weren’t prepared for it or weren’t “college material” dumbed down the classes for everyone. A university education isn’t necessarily job training; it’s further education. Many people who ended up being pushed to go to college would have been better off in a good job-training program.
Since this idea is one that my parents have talked about for ages and ages, and I’m just now seeing more about it in the media, maybe it means it will finally get some attention and traction and we can start rethinking what’s turned out to be a bad idea. I’m just going to throw out a few of the bad consequences I’ve seen coming from this push: since college classes have to accommodate many students who are ill prepared or simply not able to handle them, they’ve been “dumbed down” and don’t teach or expect from students as much as they used to. Cumulatively, this means a university degree isn’t worth what it used to be. Interestingly, I just saw an article today talking about a study from CareerBuilder.com: employers want college grads now for jobs that used to just need high school grads. Companies also are requiring more degrees, so master’s are necessary where bachelor’s used to do. I’ve noticed this, ironically perhaps, in the school systems: teachers are more and more required to have master’s degrees. Has this improved education for young students? I think not. So we’re requiring more and more degrees, perhaps because lower degrees mean less. This is simply degree inflation.
And think about how much, then, it costs to go to college now, let alone finish a degree, one that is then not worth what it used to be! We have a huge problem with tons of college grads out there holding huge student loans. And many aren’t being able to find jobs. College costs are definitely too high, while at the same time university degrees are worth less. Yeah, that makes sense.
This has all come to pass because of studies that show that college grads on average make more over their lifetimes than those who just graduate high school. OK, so yes, if we want people to be more prosperous, then it seems like a simple solution: send them to college. But the writer of the Slate article makes some excellent points: we’re not doing any favors for those who are just not ready for a university education. As he says:
Imagine that you’re finishing ninth grade at a large comprehensive urban high school. The year hasn’t gone very well; because you are reading and doing math at a sixth-grade level, much of your coursework is a struggle. … A rational system would acknowledge that, with just three years until graduation, the likelihood of you getting to a true “college readiness” level by the end of 12th grade is extremely low. Even if all the pieces come together in dramatic fashion—you get serious help with your basic skills, someone finds you a great mentor, your motivation for hitting the books increases significantly—you probably aren’t going to make it. … To be sure, your long-term earnings will probably be lower than if you squeak out a college degree. But that’s a false choice, because you’re almost surely not going to get that college degree anyway. The decision is whether to follow the college route to almost certain failure, or to follow another route to significant success.
Why don’t we actually give high school students more options for careers, rather than saying, “OK, go to college and you’ll be fine”? We’ve had a French exchange student this year and learned that France gives students more choices when they start high school. The Slate writer references Germany, which seems to be similar (don’t quote me on this; this is an educated guess). Why not provide really useful vocational training, with a true variety of real-world choices, earlier in school? Basically, now all we have is maybe a few very limited choices for voc-tech. And it’s frowned upon because we really want kids to all get to college; we don’t want to discourage any from not going. But why can’t we set kids up with vocations they’ll enjoy, have natural aptitudes for, and will still earn them a good middle-class living? Plumbing, electrical, food service, what-have-you? Our exchange student chose the hotels/hospitality industry and is going to a high school that already is leading her down that path. I think that’s pretty smart, actually. Here, she’s learning English so she’ll be better equipped to deal with foreigners who visit her at work there in France.
I understand why we got where we are today. We were trying to give disadvantaged young people a leg up and options. But we’ve doomed many of them to disappointment, failure, and student loans they won’t have college degrees to go with. As the Slate writer said so well:
But our system isn’t rational, and it doesn’t like to acknowledge long odds. Perhaps it used to, but this sort of realism was judged to be deterministic, racist, and classist. And for sure, when judgments were made on the basis of ZIP code or skin color, the old system was exactly that. Those high school “tracks” were immutable, and those who wound up in “voc-ed” (or, at least as bad, the “general” track) were those for whom secondary schooling, in society’s eyes, was mostly a custodial function.
But making sure that there are real options for our young people—options that include high-quality career and technical education—is a totally different proposition. We shouldn’t force anyone into that route, but we also shouldn’t guilt kids with low odds of college success—regardless of their race or class—to keep trudging through academic coursework as teens.
So here we are, a nation full of college graduates, whose degrees are worth less and less, who will be paying off huge loans for decades, as well as plenty of college dropouts who went, didn’t have success, and who STILL have loans to pay off, with no degree to show for it. How about we really help people find the work that will suit them, that will be cost-effective and will target their skills and interests? Crazy idea. It might just work.
I'm a book reviewer, editor, and writer with four daughters and tons of projects always keeping me hopping. I blog at Life and Lims and run the book review site Rated Reads.